Autumn—So much life to live!

I love autumn.

More than any other time of year, I believe that autumn fills me with a consistent flow of peace, joy, happiness and anticipation. Even after having given this phenomenon a great deal of thought over many years, I still cannot explain it. Best just to accept and enjoy it, I think.

The other morning, just before sunrise, I stepped out onto my second story deck to breathe in the air of the new day and allow my mind to become stimulated by the sights, sounds and smells of that autumn morning. The deck was damp from the overnight rain, but I could see enough hint of light from the dissipating clouds in the sky above me that it appeared we would, at least for a little while, enjoy a break from the recent refreshing showers. The garden space, but a place of dreams at this time, was ensconced in a misty fog where I imagined maturing conifers filling beds, yet to be dug.

‘Chief Joseph’ begins his colorful show as daylight hours become shorter – usually, by mid to late October here in my corner of the PNW. As temperatures drop, his color becomes more and more intense through the winter months.

I breathed in very deeply, the misty air, and enjoyed the faint smoky-sweet scent of a neighbor’s wood-stove, while the hum of another neighbor’s heat pump reminded me that summer was truly, finally over. Sounds of far off traffic purred as commuters were busy about their morning routines and children talking and laughing at the nearby bus-stop reminded me of the special appointment I had that morning.

By the time I arrived at the Jean Iseli Memorial Garden, the sun had made its way above the neighboring stand of tall Douglas fir trees and gave the garden a very special morning glow. Light glistened off of the remaining rain drops which still clung to branches creating a spectacular sparkle to the garden as I made my approach up the long driveway which leads to this very special place.

Thankful for my long association with the folks at Iseli, allowing me my treasured visits to the display gardens; I climbed out of my truck and made my way in to the office to check in. Once I was welcomed, and set on my way to stroll the garden paths, I quickly began the inspiration absorption process.

Thankful for my long association with the folks at Iseli, which allows me my treasured visits to the display gardens…

So much to see there—I do believe I see something new with each visit. Being that I have had some input on the garden design over the years, it is particularly encouraging to see how specific trees and viewing vistas have matured over the 30 years since the Jean Iseli Memorial Garden was first planted. Seeing changes through the years and making note of what design and plant combinations worked and which ones didn’t has always been very helpful to me in making planting choices in my own gardens over those same 30 years. Now that I am in the early planning stage of creating a new garden, I am excited to draw on all those lessons.

One tree that consistently gives me a charge this time of year is Pinus contorta ‘Chief Joseph’. I have mentioned this delightful, slow-growing tree over the years and it never fails to inspire admiration from most all who see it. Although photos of the tree are very nice, there is something very special about seeing this exciting tree, in person, in a beautiful garden setting.

As I stood, admiring the beauty of the large specimen planted at Iseli, my mind took me immediately back to that morning as I stood upon my deck, overlooking the small, foggy garden space. I imagined where I might place the good Chief in my new garden so that it would stand out through the autumn and winter months and yet be able to fade into the background during the spring and summer when it takes its rest and re-energizes itself during its light green color-stage.

Autumn, a season with so much to experience, so much life to live, I love it!

Conifer Lover

A new garden and a new perspective

For those of you who have been following my gardening adventures for some time, you will be pleased to learn that I officially have a new bit of soil in which to dig my spade, enrich with compost and transform from rather dull to a garden full of life. This new place, although a fairly blank canvas to work with, is not without its challenges and its blessings!

Looking to the Jean Iseli Memorial Garden for inspiration in creating my own new garden space.

First of all, it is a much smaller plot to work with – the smallest I believe I have ever had the pleasure to be a caretaker. Being a small space is actually very good since as I age I am finding it is becoming more difficult to care for larger spaces, and even though my last place was only about an acre, it was becoming a challenge for me to maintain. Having a more contemporary sized city lot will be far easier to construct and maintain a new garden. Being adjacent to a city park and public green-space makes my small garden feel larger and I can utilize the neighboring open view as I plan my new garden space to make my small lot feel larger.

My back yard slopes away from the house toward the green-space and a large stand of native Pseudotsuga menziesii (Douglas fir) and Thuja plicata (western red cedar) and Acer circinatum (vine maple) so I have a wonderful background for my new space. Since I do love our native large trees, I will be planting a back corner with a few Douglas Firs and Western Red Cedar seedlings found growing in my dear auntie’s acreage. My uncle was so pleased that I wanted a few of the plants he had transplanted from their veggie garden space into pots a year ago. I am excited for these young trees to become established in a particularly challenging back corner which will help the transition from my garden to the surrounding, neighboring background native trees.

My overall goal is to reduce grassy lawn space and increase border beds with space for lots of dwarf conifers, Japanese maples and other exciting small trees and shrubs, perennials and herbs. I also need to install some raised beds for vegetables.

Possibly the biggest challenge will be the rock filled soil since this area is part of what was an ancient river bed. I have already dug a few bowling ball sized stones out of the way. I tend to see these rocks less as an annoyance and more as free landscape materials – to think, some people actually spend money to place these same kinds of stones into their gardens. I will be harvesting my own landscape ornaments while I make room for plants to stretch out their root systems.

As I begin clearing out brambles and other unwanted vines and weeds, I am beginning to imagine planting some of the very plants that I have been describing right here in the blog over the past several months. There is a lot of work ahead, and a lot of great exercise which will please my wife and health-care practitioners. Of course with the tremendous increase in calorie burning all this hard work will induce, I may also need to make a visit to my personal baker to ensure I have plenty of energy to burn.

Stay tuned, my gardening friends, more new gardening stories to come!

Conifer Lover

Tasty dwarfs to fill some space

As I continue to explore ideas for designing a new garden space, I am looking at some of my favorite plants to use as Fillers – plants that will fill the space with year-round color, texture and interesting form. Last time I chose three dwarf conifers which might be considered fast growing as they will tend to grow larger in a 10-20 year span of time than the selections I will explore today.

‘Banderica’ is a neat, tidy, slow growing little kiss of a conifer that will add a dandy flavor to the conifer garden.

I began this design project with a great Thriller tree, then I selected a few Japanese Maple Filler plants to pick from depending on how large (or small) my actual future space may be. My next decision was to choose a few larger dwarf conifers that will scale nicely with the maples. Based on those choices, I am ready to scale down the expected size of this next group of dwarf conifers.

This time I will take a look at a few green colored choices, each with its own distinct shade of green and unique textural features. I’ll also include a dwarf blue and a dwarf yellow selection to spice up the color palette a bit.

‘Sea Urchin’ has soft, light green foliage (with a hint of blue) and fills in a small space with other dwarf conifers and other exciting plants.

I love the rich, very dark green color of Pinus leucodermis (heldreichi) ‘Banderica’ which, along with its perfect, slow growing, broadly conical form makes it an excellent, formal looking small tree. Pinus strobus ‘Sea Urchin’ adds a pleasing effect as its rounded, slow growing, soft textured form highlights its bright, light green hues. Picea abies ‘Hildburghausen’ begins the spring season with a flush of bright  green foliage which matures into the medium green color we enjoy most of the year. Its unique mounding, textural form stays neat in the garden while slowly filling in space and looks great with an artfully placed rock nearby.

‘Hildburghausen’ is a sculptural, low, mounding dwarf conifer that fills in space with reliable color and a pleasing form.

One of the slower growers in today’s selection may also have claim to the most interesting color of the group. Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Blue Moon’ has very soft foliage with responds well to a light trimming should one be inclined to encourage its globe shape. The color of this cultivar is more of a steel blue than other common selections of Sawara Cypress such as ‘Boulevard’, ‘Curly Tops’ or ‘True Blue’. It is also a slower grower than the others which helps it remain a great garden filler plant for many, many years.

‘Blue Moon’ is a delightful, globe shaped, soft textured, steel blue conifer that will provide a dandy color spot where there is a small space to fill.

Finally, I just have to include a Cryptomeria japonica ‘Twinkle Toes’ to this group for its reliably compact growth, its coarsely textured, bright yellow foliage and its informal, mounding, broadly pyramidal form. Plus, I just love to tell folks that I love my ‘Twinkle Toes’ and if they visit my garden, they’ll fall in love too!

The coarse textured, bright yellow foliage of ‘Twinkle Toes’ adds a touch of Zing to the garden!

My imagined garden space is beginning to fill in nicely! I have a few very slow growing dwarf to miniature conifers to add to the list which will complete the Fillers, and then I’ll post some definite selections to choose from for my Spillers, which will be very low growing to prostrate forms that crawl along the ground and fill space between larger plants.

Until next time…

Conifer Lover

Filling up space with great color, texture and form

Last time I focused on some of my favorite broad-leaved foliage Fillers. As you may recall, I am pre-planning some ideas for a new garden space without actually having that space. A couple of posts back I chose a great Thriller plant to work with in this potential design and then I added to plan a few different colors and forms of Japanese maple that I think will fill in nicely with their multi-seasons of colorful foliage. But, I certainly cannot fill the space with broadleaves alone – I also need to add an assortment of colorful and interesting dwarf conifers. This time I will mention some plants that I think will work well together based on their sizes, shapes and their growth rates.

Thuja plicata ‘Whipcord’ adds good color and a lot of great texture to fill garden space.

Beginning with a large, silvery, bluish-green Thriller specimen (Picea omorika ‘Gotelli’s Weeping’) and then adding a deep red Filler (Acer palmatum ‘Twombly’s Red Sentinel’) I can continue to fill space with some very nice color and texture. One plant that will add both a unique texture and a pleasing green color is Thuja plicata ‘Whipcord’. This very popular dwarf conifer will slowly fill space with its coarse cords of light green foliage. Growing into a mounding form with branches which arch upward, out and droop toward the ground creates a very nice complement to the upward growing branches and red foliage of the ‘Twombly’s Red Sentinel’. It will also make a nice background plant to smaller fill-plants and other dwarf and miniatures that I will discuss later.

Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana Lutea’ is a slow-growing filler that adds a thrill of its own with its great color and superbly graceful form.

The next two dwarf conifers that I want to consider for my imaginary space, yet-to-be are Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana Lutea’ and Thuja occidentalis ‘Golden Globe’. Although both are plants with yellow foliage, they are quite different shades of yellow and each has its own unique foliage and growth habit. ‘Nana Lutea’ is the classic Dwarf Golden Hinoki and had been very popularly used in gardens for the past 50 years. It grows very slowly into a pyramidal shape with tightly held sprays of golden yellow foliage that become more intensely colored with increased hours of sunlight. It may need some protection from the hot afternoon sun in some locations to prevent its near white portions of foliage from scalding. A mix of sun and shade should provide beautiful color.

Thuja occidentalis ‘Golden Globe’ is a filler with pleasing form, bright color and a lovely scent.

‘Golden Globe’ on the other hand, is a more vigorous grower with more muted yellow tones. It responds very well to light shearing, and I prefer to keep mine in a neat globe shape by running the shears over the new foliage once per year. This practice not only helps keep the plant in tip-top form, but releases its magnificent perfume and makes shearing less a task and more of a real pleasure. Depending on the overall space, I may use one or both of these in my future design.

Ahhh… my imaginary new garden space is beginning to fill in nicely. Be sure to come back next time for more of my dreamy Fillers!

Conifer Lover

Weeping welcomed here

A few posts back I mentioned that I would be sharing some of my ideas for conifer groupings in my future garden. One of the primary features of any plant grouping is the “focal point.” This concept applies to large garden vistas, smaller viewing spaces and all the way down to container gardens. You have probably heard someone use the phrase, “thriller, filler and spiller” when talking about container garden design, and the same basic concept applies to the full-sized garden. Each of the plant groupings that I will share will incorporate this basic design concept in one way or another.

Picea omorika ‘Gotelli Weeping’ – This specimen “thriller” is a brilliant focal point in the garden.

One of my favorite larger “thriller” plants is a beautiful form of the Serbian Spruce. This cultivar was admired many years ago growing in the National Arboretum with the name, Picea omorika ‘Pendula’ and was propagated and sold for many years with that name. In 1979 a respected conifer enthusiast and grower gave it a distinct cultivar name because it appeared to have unique characteristics and it was believed to be important to keep clones of this distinct tree separate from the assorted other pendulous forms that had been marketed under the name ‘Pendula’. Unfortunately, it has taken many years for that name change to take place throughout the world of conifers (including conifer growers) so this magnificent cultivar may still be found in US garden centers under the name P.o. ‘Pendula’.

‘Gotelli Weeping’ is a large tree pushing out a foot or two of new leader growth per year, depending on its cultural conditions. The young graft I had in my past garden pushed 15 to 18 inches of terminal growth the last two years in my care. At the time of this writing, the specimen pictured here is over 22 feet tall. It was 12 feet tall when it was planted in the Jean Iseli Memorial Garden in 2008.

I will plant ‘Gotelli Weeping’ as a specimen focal point and then add dwarf conifers, Japanese Maples and other ornamental plants to fill in space and add color and texture. “Spillers” in this case may be a combination of ground covering conifers, perennial plants and annual flowers. I my case, I expect that my future garden will be confined to a smaller suburban space, so I will want to plan carefully where I place any larger trees. When planting my ‘Gotelli Weeping’ I will want to provide ample space for it to grow large and to be viewed from all angles.

Next time I will discuss some of the “filler” plants that are high on my list to plant near this fine specimen.

Conifer Lover

The garden of my dreams – in my dreams

I have been thinking about plant combinations. Now that I have the clean slate of my imagination without the constraints of an actual garden space, I have been enjoying creating the garden of my dreams – in my dreams. With all my years growing conifers of all types, sizes, shapes, colors and textures, I am drawing upon that experience in an attempt to design small garden vignettes which I will be able to utilize in my new garden – wherever it may be.

Pulling from my mind’s database of somewhat commonly available garden conifers (and other exciting garden plants) and utilizing the vast amount of information available through the internet, my goal is to create versatile combinations of plants that will work together well in an assortment of planting space sizes and shapes. The emphasis of my designs will be pleasing combinations of characteristics and growth rates, so that the plants will complement and flow together whether in a longer, linear bed or a wider, rounder space. Of course once I decide on the most important plants that I want to ensure I include in these garden vignettes, I can explore the many possibilities for filler plants, ground covers and even <gasp> flowering perennials, trees and shrubs.


‘Confucius’ is a beacon of bright, beautiful, year-round color in the garden.

I like to design with bold colors so that my gardens are filled with interest and excitement all year long. Dwarf and miniature conifers are available in a vast assortment of vibrant yellows, golds and blues with shades of green from very dark to very bright and some even exhibit a variegated combination of color. Along with the wide range of color choices are also variations in texture that affect the garden nearly as much as strong color statements. Compact, small-needled plants with many small branches held tightly can provide a dense, fine texture. Plants with longer, wispy needles covering long branches obviously give on open, airy feel to the garden.

There are literally thousands of conifer cultivars which supply my garden design dreams and imagination with all kinds of excitement. My goal is to begin by limiting myself to readily available cultivars. Once I actually have a new place to grow a garden, I can become more serious about tracking down some of the more rare conifers that have limited availability, and those that may only be available through other conifer enthusiasts and collectors.

One tree I believe will be a very wise choice to include in my future garden is Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Confucius’. I may have described this premium, golden yellow Hinoki Cypress in the past, but it is well worth mentioning again today. As an intermediate grower ‘Confucius’ puts out an average of 6 to 10 inches of new terminal growth per year. Lush, bright yellow foliage covers irregular branches and darkens to golden hues as it matures. Interior foliage, with less sun exposure, is lighter yellow green graduating to darker green the farther into the interior of the tree one looks. The gardener may choose to allow its irregular branching to dominate or, with a little pruning, a more symmetrical habit can be encouraged. In time, ‘Confucius’ will become a very prominent specimen and should be placed where its bright color will draw attention to, and complement other garden plants.

Conifer Lover

Enter the Cobra

Sometimes I crack myself up. Seriously. Sometimes my first impression of a new plant is so poor that I roll my eyes and wonder why anyone would propagate the darned thing, let alone in large enough numbers to market it across the continent. What makes me laugh at myself, is that more often than not, those plants that I initially had such a strong negative reaction to, later become among my favorite of all plants. Several years ago I mentioned Picea abies ‘Acrocona’ as being a plant just like this. My initial response was not one of jubilation, but as I wrote in that blog post, ‘Acrocona’ has become one of my all-time favorite conifers!

Enter the Cobra.

This Picea abies ‘Cobra’ began its life as an odd looking, long single stick covered in green needles. Today it is full of lush foliage, and because of its culture, makes a unique focal point and an excellent ground cover.

The first time I cast my eyes upon this plant, Picea abies ‘Cobra’, it was a fairly young graft. It appeared to be essentially a fat stick covered with dark green needles and a few brownish-tan buds—absent of any side branches at all. It had been trained to grow up a bamboo stake to a height of almost five feet (in just 3 or 4 years). I simply could not imagine the appeal of such an oddity. I am definitely a fan of many unusual looking conifers, but this one, trained straight up the stake, without any side branches, just seemed to be past my point of appreciation.

A few years later I happened upon this very same conifer, in the Jean Iseli Memorial Garden and it had been transformed. Once its terminal growth reached the top of its supporting stake, it curved and then headed right down to the ground. I also noticed that those few lateral buds I had seen on my initial observation had sprouted new, vigorous lateral branches, which followed the example of the terminal, and swept outward and down, weeping to the ground. Many other new buds had formed and the plant had begun to fill out in a most spectacular way.

Today, some 15 years later, the plant has filled out with loads of sweeping, weeping branches, flopping and flowing to the ground where they lay prostrate and layer themselves into a most excellent ground cover. Overall the effect is quite stunning and this particular conifer has become one of my very favorite of the Weeping Norway spruce cultivars available today from independent garden centers around the world.

If your initial encounter with ‘Cobra’ reminds you of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, go ahead and take it home to your garden, in just a few years I think it will become one of your all-time favorites too!

Conifer Lover